Friday, November 23, 2012

Cities like Memphis have two sides, one that is invisible to many

Cities like Memphis have two sides, one that is invisible to many
By:  Michael G. Lander
Memphis, like other large cities, is a place of extreme contrasts and contradictions.  One need not look hard to see it.  On the one extreme is the look of affluence and wealth and on the other end is crippling poverty and the despair that often accompanies it.

Despite the glaring and extreme differences that seemingly coexist, occasionally within view of one another, people come from all around the world to see Memphis and everything that it has to offer.  They come to see the place where Elvis Presley once lived, to visit the Memphis Zoo, the Pink Palace Museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum.  They also come to watch the ducks waddle through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, to walk and to listen to music on Beale Street, to ride a paddlewheel boat or to sit and watch the sunset on the Mississippi River.  Others come to Memphis to catch a game at FedEx Forum or
AutoZone Park, or to taste some of the southern cuisine and its world-famous barbeque

According to Memphis Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Memphis draws more than 10 million visitors to the city each year and TripAdvisor ranked Memphis as number two in "America's Top 10 Destination on the Rise." It described Memphis as "a must for any die-hard music fan" and noted that the city had "more sunny days each year than Miami."  In addition to this, National Geographic named Memphis as one of the 20 must-see places in the world. 

Underneath the facade that attracts and brings in the tourists to the bluff city, there is a side not advertised in travel brochures, magazines, or on websites.  It is something that is even overlooked by those who live in and around the bluff city itself.  Like any other city its size, Memphis has a side that nobody wants to see.  It is a city, like many others, that is plagued with drugs, crimes, prostitution, gangs, unemployment, run-down and dilapidated homes, empty business buildings, and trash-littered streets. 
There is also has something else that often gets ignored by many Memphians, and that is the city's homelessness.

The homeless, like in other cities, are a group of people who are sometimes referred to as the invisible people.  One website,, has a mission to highlight and draw attention to these individuals.  The "Invisible People" website is administered by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to changing the way we think about people experiencing homelessness.  On the "About" page of their site, they describe a homeless man who was shocked and amazed when someone could see him because he apparently thought he had actually become invisible.  As is pointed out in the narrative on the website, people often avoid making eye contact or engaging the homeless people in conversation because it is always much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence. 

Even if many people might be reluctant to look at or think about the homeless, it does not change the reality that they are there and they are not going anywhere.  They walk our city streets and , with very little effort, we might be able to notice these otherwise invisible people, if we try.  If we look hard enough for them, we might catch one or more of them sifting through garbage for aluminum cans, or just sitting somewhere with a packed suitcase somewhere nearby, others with nothing at all.  Their clothes are often worn out and dirty as they often are.  Many of these invisible people appear just to look out and to watch the world as it passes by them, a world seemingly oblivious to them.  For some of these invisible ones, they seem like they are waiting on something, something that never comes. 

Robert Warren, 55, a self-ascribed "preacher" is one of these invisible people.  He has been living on the streets for 14 years.

He served in the military from 1973 - 1987.  About 75,000 veterans, like Warren, are homeless on any given night, according to estimates from the Veterans Administration.

While some would not want to live on the streets, Warren said that he chooses to do it.  "I am happy," Warren will tell you.  "I don't own nothing and nothing owns me," he said.  "I am also a Christian and I live like Jesus," Warren added.

Warren spends most of his days just east of the Civic Center Plaza trolley stop off Main Street.  It is in view of the Shelby County building where he was once turned down for a job.  He believes that anyone could easily end up like he has, especially those who live paycheck-to-paycheck and end up losing their job.  While economic factors seem to contribute most to homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, and addiction disorders are other contributing factors according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In an article by Bianca Phillips in the Memphis Flyer, the executive director for Partners for the Homeless, Pat Morgan, said that "there are 1,800 homeless people in Memphis on any given day - at least that we can find."  Partners for the Homeless is a nonprofit organization that attempts to provide resources and services for the city's homeless.  In August 2002, it prepared a blue print for the Memphis and Shelby County Mayors' task force on homelessness.

The Commercial Appeal Reporter, Grant Smith, compiled data obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau on 2010 Emergency and Transitional Shelter Populations.  In a Sunday, November 2012 article entitled "Now You Know:  Homeless Population," he wrote, "When people have no address, they can be difficult to count.  The U.S. Census Bureau counts the homeless people living at emergency and transitional shelters, but it's not a complete picture of the population."  In the data from the Census Bureau, it showed that Tennessee had 3,509 people of both sexes and all ages counted at these shelters in 2010.  That number accounts for about 1.7 percent, Smith wrote, of the homeless population counted at shelters in the United States.  Most 2,420 were male and 425 were children.

Among the places that provide shelter and/or meals for the homeless in Memphis is Lighthouse, Memphis Day Shelter, Memphis Family Shelter, New Life Residential, and Memphis Union Mission.  The Memphis Union Mission is the oldest and largest shelter in Memphis.

"We provide emergency services for men, drug and alcohol programs for men and women, intact family housing for families, transitional housing for program graduates, a day center for both men and women, and a church family for the homeless to be a part of," the Director of Homeless of Ministries and Pastor of Grace Church of Memphis, Jeff Patrick, said.

"We have between 150 - 300 men a night that we feed and/or provide shelter for," Patrick said.  "Most of Memphis Union Mission's services are provided free-of-charge to include our residential recovery programs, most of our emergency services, and the clothing, hygiene, and food are also free," Patrick said.

"Overnight guests who have elected not to enter a recovery program receive four free nights each month.  Once they have used up their monthly free nights, they do pay $6 a night, which includes dinner, an overnight stay, and breakfast the next morning," Patrick said.  "Overnight guests always stay for free on nights when it is 32 degrees or below.  Furthermore, we are able to provide work referrals for guests who are willing to work, and we honor vouchers from several area churches and ministries," he added.

Even though food donations are down, Patrick said that Memphis Union Mission has been able to operate within its budget.  He also indicated that around 75 percent of each dollar received in donations goes toward shelter, programs, and all services provided, with 25 percent going to staff and administrative costs.

Memphis Union Mission began with a Christian businessman, T. Walker Lewis, who felt a great need for rescue mission work in the Memphis area.  Since it started in 1945, Patrick said that hundreds of men, women, and families have made a transition from the streets to permanent housing.

Without the safety net provided by charitable organizations like Memphis Union Mission, homeless men, women, and children would have little else to turn to as they strive to live on the streets of Memphis where they will continue to be invisible to many.

Memphis Photo Slideshow:
The Invisible Part of Memphis Slideshow:

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